In Bihar CM Nitish’s Constituency, Dalit Weavers Upset With Modi

Jamal Kidwai reports from Bihar’s Jehanabad & Nalanda constituencies – two ‘Left’ seats which BJP has never won.

6 min read
Image used for representational purposes.

“Dinosaurs became extinct because they refused to change with the times. And that’s what has happened to the Communist Party of India (CPI) in (Bihar’s) Jehanabad and Nalanda. They (CPI) were ruling these districts in the 1980s and early 1990s but were dogmatic and refused to accept new social realities,” says comrade Ambika, the district secretary of Jehanabad’s CPI.

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Another comrade adds, “If Begusarai is Leningrad, then by that logic, Jehanabad is Moscow”. In a manner of speaking, they are right. Unlike Begusarai, where the CPI only won the seat once in 1967, Jehanabad elected a CPI candidate, Ramashray Prasad Singh, four times in a row (1984, 1989, 1991 and 1996). In neighbouring Nalanda constituency, the CPI won thrice (1980, 1984 and 1991).

 Comrade Ambika, with a picture of Ramashray Prasad Singh in background at CPI office in Jehanabad.
Comrade Ambika, with a picture of Ramashray Prasad Singh in background at CPI office in Jehanabad.
(Photo: Sourced by Jamal Kidwai)

The extent of CPI’s popularity can be imagined from the fact that it won both seats in one of the biggest elections (of 1984), when the Congress, led by Rajiv Gandhi, swept over 400 Lok Sabha seats.

Jehanabad & Nalanda: Two Seats BJP Has Never Won

Nalanda is one of the most high-profiles seats in Bihar, the home constituency of Chief Minister Nitish Kumar. He won from this seat in 2004. His guru, and iconic socialist leader George Fernandes (and former defence minister), won three consecutive elections from Nalanda (1996, 1998 and 1999).

An RJD meeting in a village in Jehanabad, Bihar.
An RJD meeting in a village in Jehanabad, Bihar.
(Photo: Sourced by Jamal Kidwai)

These districts form what is known as the ‘red corridor’, infamous for several caste-based massacres by the dreaded upper-caste paramilitary, the Ranvir Sena, and underground Maoists – the worst being in Laxmanpur Bathe village in 1997, and Shankarbigha village in 1999, in which 58 and 22 Dalits respectively, were massacred.

After the decline of the CPI, these two seats have become a pocket borough of various shades of socialist parties. The BJP has never won these two Lok Sabha seats.

The 2019 Lok Sabha elections in Bihar are a pollster’s nightmare, characterised as they are, by rapid political re-alignments in Bihar (since 2014). To recap in a nutshell, the 2014 general elections saw a triangular fight in Bihar: Nitish Kumar’s JDU vs RJD/Congress vs BJP/Paswan’s LJP/Kushwaha’s RLSP.

The 2015 assembly elections became a two-way contest between RJD /Congress / JDU vs BJP/Paswan’s LJP/Kushwaha’s RLSP. But the current Lok Sabha election is seeing yet another re-alliance. So now it’s RJD / Congress /RLSP /HAM / VIP vs BJP/ JDU/ Paswan’s LJP.

In many ways, both the Jehanabad and Nalanda seats epitomise the confusion and complexities created by these political somersaults, for which Nitish Kumar should get the most credit.

Dividing the Bhumihar Vote in Jehanabad

In 2014, NDA candidate Arun Kumar, who fought on the ticket of Kushwaha’s Rashtriya Lok Samta Party (RLSP), defeated Surendra Yadav of the Rashtriya Janta Dal (RJD) by over 40,000 votes. In the current elections, Arun Kumar is fighting as an independent. He is pitted against RJD’s Yadav and Janata Dal (United’s) Chandeshwar Prasad Chandrawanshi. Both Kumar and Yadav are seen as local candidates. Kumar had also won the seat in 1999 on a JDU ticket, and Yadav in 1998.

“Arunji (Kumar), though a Bhumihar, is a very popular leader amongst the people of all samaj. He will cut into the of votes of both the parties, especially JDU,” says Ranjit bhai, who has been working in schools in Jehanabad for the last 20 years. This is a widely held view that Arun Kumar will divide the numerically influential Bhumihar vote in Jehanabad. This, along with Begusarai, is one of the few seats in Bihar where the Bhumihar vote matters.

Arun Kumar has admitted in his interviews to local news channels, that he sees the NDA as the ‘enemy number one’, and many believe he has a tacit understanding with the RJD. The RJD has a committed vote base of MY (Muslim-Yadavs).

This view is reinforced by a group of people in Walidad block, who are sitting at a makeshift bar which serves toddy gathered from palm trees. They belong to various castes: Pasi’s, Yadav’s and Mallah’s. They all say they will vote for the RJD. We ask them about Chandrawanshi, the JDU candidate. They reply in unison that he is an ‘outsider’.

A makeshift toddy ‘bar’ in Walidad, Jehanabad
A makeshift toddy ‘bar’ in Walidad, Jehanabad
(Photo: Sourced by Jamal Kidwai)

Toddy-Tapping in Prohibition-Era Bihar

Interestingly, Pasis are traditionally toddy-tappers. One would imagine they would have been the most hit by Prohibition. On the contrary, they are reaping the benefits to the hilt. According the law, toddy can be sold within the vicinity of the trees they are gathered from.

The do’s and don’ts related to the sale and purchase of toddy have many legal loopholes. It’s in great demand, as it has become a substitute for conventional liquor. The rates have gone up manifold.

Monu Kumar, a Pasi and toddy seller, is asked who he will vote for. He says, “RJD”. I counter him by asking, “But Nitish did Prohibition and you benefitted? Pat came the reply, “He is a dal-badloo (turncoat), so I cannot trust him.” And adds wittily, “who knows when he will reverse the decision of Prohibition, and our business will again be back to normal.”

Mukesh Agarwal runs a garment shop in Arwal town in Jehanabad. He says that the Bhumihars are annoyed with the JDU as it has not given a ticket to Arun Kumar, and the upper-caste vote will split.

Baniyas (business-community folk) like him, and other upper-castes like Brahmins and Rajputs may vote for JDU, but that vote will not be enough to defeat the Muslim-Yadav combination of RJD. JDU is also banking on EBC votes (EBC includes castes like Lohars, Kumhars, Badadhis, Sunars), which do not form a vote bank for any party in particular, but many will be split with CPI(ML), which has a significant base amongst EBCs and Mahadalits, and which has fielded zila parishad member Kunti Devi.

A Secure JDU Seat

The historic town of Nalanda was one of the only two seats that the JDU had won in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the other being the Purnia seat. At that point, Kaushalendra Kumar had defeated the NDA’s Satya Nand Sharma (LJP) by a thin margin of less than 10,000 votes. This time, Kumar is pitted against the Mahagathbandan’s Hindustani Awam Morcha (HAM) candidate, Ashok Kumar Azad. HAM was formed by former Bihar chief minister Jiten Ram Manji in 2015 when he broke away from Nitish Kumar. Azad is an EBC, and belongs to the neighbouring Gaya district.

The Nalanda seat has a big population, almost 20 percent of whom are Kurmi voters. Nitish Kumar belongs to the same caste.

There are also a large number of Yadavs (14 percent) and Muslims (10 percent). Sadhu Sharan Singh ‘Mukhiaji’, a well-known social worker in the Hilsa block of Nalanda, and someone who is knowledgeable about local politics says, “This is one of the secure seats of JDU. There are several factors working in Kumar’s favour. The Kumar of JDU is a local and Azad is considered as an outsider.” He adds, “But more importantly, Nalanda has seen lot of development work, and there is also a huge loyalty to Nitish Kumar, besides the support of Kurmis and upper-castes, that will help JDU win this seat.

Demonetisation & GST Fallout: Dalit Weaver Community Slams JDU & Modi

Some 40 kms away is Nepra village in Silao block of Nalanda, inhabited by some 50 families of Tanti and Patwa castes that belong to Dalit communities. They are traditional handloom weavers. They disagree with Mukhiaji.

According to them, they had voted for JDU in the last assembly elections. But this time, entire Dalit communities and the poor will vote against Modi. They claim that their business and everyday life was shattered by demonetisation and GST, and they will never forgive Modi for that.

Handloom weavers in Nepra village, Nalanda
Handloom weavers in Nepra village, Nalanda
(Photo: Sourced by Jamal Kidwai)

Bihar has seen the formation and break-up of many political alliances: Kushwaha’s RLSP breaking away from NDA and joining RJD, Jiten Ram Manjhi breaking away from JDU, forming his own party and then joining RJD, and so on. There has been social churning caused by moves like Prohibition, and communal polarisation caused by a series of violent communal incidents, for example, during Ram Navami processions in 2018 in Aurangabad, Kaimur, Gaya, Siwan, amongst other places.

All these developments make predictions virtually impossible. One will have to wait impatiently for 23 May, it seems.

(Jamal Kidwai is the founder of social enterprise ‘Baragaon Weaves’. He tweets at @KidwaiJamal. Views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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